Officiating volleyball in a pandemic brings about a new set of challenges

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Official Ed Tucholski

In collaboration with volleyball official Ed Tucholski
While no one knows exactly what the fall volleyball season will look like, a recent survey by Referee magazine revealed that approximately two thirds of officials are ready, willing, and able to get back to work.

So assuming we play, what will the fall season look like to a volleyball official on match day?

Good luck with that.

“I’m not sleeping at night, because all the issues that are leaving loose ends out there. And I’m not a loose ends kind of person,” said Marcia Alterman, coordinator of officials for six NCAA conferences including the Big Ten. 

“We talk about contingency plans and what-ifs all the time and nobody has any firm answers yet and we’re nearly into July.”

By this time of year, most officials not only know their NCAA fall schedules, they’ve made travel plans and they’re ready to go.

“Literally as we’re talking we’re creating what we’re calling an inquiry to send out to all our referees,” Alterman said Sunday afternoon from her home in Wichita, Kansas. “Are you willing to fly, are you willing to drive, what if you have to have your temperature taken, and what if you’re required to wear a mask, are you willing? 

“Do you only want to go to places where you don’t have to spend the night? There are all these questions. If I were a referee right now I would be pondering the risk-reward.”

There’s no doubt that a certain percentage of volleyball officials classify as at-risk from coronavirus.

“The fact that our officiating population is aging has been known for years,” Alterman said. “And a concern for years. That’s why we’ve had such an emphasis on recruiting (younger officials). So common sense tells us that more of them are at an age to be at risk.”

Which is where Ed comes in. He takes us through what an official might encounter this season, from actually arriving at the volleyball venue.

“You drive up to the gym parking lot and gather your gear,” Ed wrote. “Before leaving your car you think about the preparations unique to this season. Have you had the virus? Have you been tested? When? Are you running a fever? How do you feel? Have you been exposed to anyone who has tested positive? You review these questions knowing that once inside the gym a match administrator may be asking the same questions of you.”

The good news, Alterman said, is that officials she’s communicated with want to get to work. She’s sent emails to her constituents asking their thoughts and “not a single person has come back and said they don’t want to. Now, there are a lot who haven’t responded and I think that’s because they don’t know. 

“But 100 percent of the responses I’ve gotten have been, ‘’My god, yes, put me to work.’ They want to work. The intangible rewards for them are much greater than the physical rewards.”

And if they do?

Ed again: “About your gear, this is the season to minimize. Your collection of patches and coins are not required courtside and should be left behind. A few extra items are required. Masks will likely be required. “Gloves are optional. Hand sanitizer and bleach wipes are probably a good idea. Regarding masks, they should be as plain as your shoes. Your mask is not an opportunity to support your favorite sports team or advertise for a particular sporting goods company. A plain color, matching your partner(s), possibly with a conference or association logo is the best option.”

Ed said in most cases officials should expect to show up in uniform and “If you anticipate changing during a full day tournament, keep your extra uniforms in your car.”

Ed lives in Maryland and is associated with eight conferences, including the Big East, Patriot, American Athletic, Ivy, Atlantic 10, America East, Colonial, and MEAC.

“Your expectation should be that the host has made all preparations for the match,” Ed wrote.” This includes checking net height and ball pressures. It is a good idea to carry a chain and pressure gauge in case an issue arises. Your line judge flags are not needed. Either the host school supplies them or the assigned line judges bring their own. Failing that, hand signals are the best bet. Requiring work-study students to use your flags is not a smart idea this season.”

And that brings up whistles. As Ed pointed out, some sanctioning organizations may require an electronic whistle. Are your batteries fresh? Is your whistle adequately loud? The loudest whistle is not necessarily the best choice in all situations. Remember there will be fewer fans in the gym or arena. In a multi-court tournament situation, variable tones may be the most important feature so as to distinguish your whistle from those on the next court.

Alterman, who also coordinates the Big East, Conference USA, American Athletics, MAC and Horizon, said she hopes all officials use electronic whistles.

“There are some who have told me they are playing around with blowing their whistle behind a mask,” Alterman said, “ which is one thing I haven’t tried yet … I think electronic whistles will become the norm, I really do.”

Ed: “If you are allowed to use a normal whistle, think it through. Most of us have experienced times when respiratory droplets come out of our whistle. We wear masks to protect those around us. Will the mask you wear contain the droplets that could potentially infect other participants? Do you wear glasses? Do your glasses fog when you wear a mask? Do you have wipes in your pocket and have you investigated anti-fogging applications for your lenses? 

“With all these preparations in order, sanitize your hands one last time and put on your mask. Grab your minimum equipment, lock your car and head to the gym. Find the host. Some facilities may require temperature checks and screening questions of all match participants. Add a few minutes to your normal arrival time to allow for this check.

“It is time to facilitate match preparations. You must know any modifications to the warmup. How many participants are allowed? Does each team supply their own balls? Do most players stay only on their side of the net with only a few designated ball chasers? Think of each team as a family. Their bench and side of the court is their house. As much as possible, keep each family in their own house. Unless one side presents a distinct advantage (e.g. sun glare) you might expect local rule modifications eliminating the change of sides for each set.

“Is a pre-match conference and coin toss necessary? Local rule changes might designate the first team to serve in set one, with teams alternating for the remaining non-deciding sets. The pre-match conference should quickly address ground rules and verify that the home team has established all necessary precautions to carry out the match safely and fairly.”

Every gym will be different. Pre-match briefings with certainly still be necessary.

Ed: “Once the players are introduced and the national anthem is complete, handshaking is eliminated and we play volleyball. Referee attention and patience will be needed as teams try to adapt to new safety procedures during the match. For example, if benches and warmup zones are spread further from the substitution zone, more reasonable time must be given for the coach to summon a player and get that player in position to substitute. A coin toss may be needed for the deciding set, but may only be used to determine the serving team if teams do not switch sides. You must know the protocols for where you are working.

“Even if teams are kept apart on their own side of the court, the ball represents potential risk. Balls will be sanitized periodically. One manufacturer provides the following procedural guidance:

… the use of sanitizing wipes inclusive of bleach or similar disinfectant have proven to be effective against emerging viral pathogens. However due to the porous surface of the leather and composite volleyballs, tests have not confirmed the ability to kill the novel coronavirus. When using the wipes, it is suggested to place the wipe in one hand while thoroughly rotating the ball to ensure cleaning of the entire surface. Once the entire surface has been cleansed, the ball will need to dry prior to being placed back in use. Please note due to the chemical properties in the wipes, some of the ink on the ball may be removed. Alcohol wipes have resulted in damage to the product and are not recommended at this time.

And there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.

As Ed asks, what will be the role of ball chasers and speed wipers? Will they be eliminated to minimize match participants or given better equipment than a dirty old towel to do their job?

“It is said that improvisational comedy is the art of learning to say yes. So too will be the art of officiating. Some local rule modifications will be clearly delineated. Other issues will require thoughtful judgement. What if a player wants to wear a mask and gloves? (of course) What if a player wants to wear long pants and sleeves out of a concern for diving on a sweaty floor? (maybe) How about a hard medical face shield? (probably not) In general, if a modification does not create an additional safety concern or create a competitive advantage it must be considered. Officials must know what is already approved or disallowed and use this guidance for anything else.

“Heightened awareness of the court will be necessary simply to maintain 6 feet of separation from all participants. New strategies to answer coach and captain questions will be necessary. Second referee communication with the scorer table will need to be adjusted. 

“Post-match discussion will become more important than ever. Thoughtful comments in match reports will be critical. This important feedback will shape the evolution of the season for the benefit of all participants.

“When the match is done, walk back to your car and remove your mask and gloves. Wipe down your equipment. Sanitize your hands and safely drive home. No doubt you are mentally fatigued. Someday when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror and volleyball returns to a more normal season, you and the rest of the cadre of officials will be stronger having worked through these very challenging times.”

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Dr. Ed Tucholski is a 37-year Navy veteran submarine officer turned physics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is soon to retire from a visiting physics professor position at Washington College, a small liberal arts school on the eastern shore of Maryland. 

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., his love of volleyball started on his high school boys team in 1975, grew through college club volleyball as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, and continued at various indoor and outdoor volleyball events as his Navy career moved him around the country. While on the faculty at the Naval Academy, he served as volunteer officer representative/mentor for both the men’s club and women’s Division I volleyball programs. 

Turning to officiating in 2006, he earned national referee and scorer ratings from USAV, winning the Silver Whistle Award as the national referee rookie of the year in 2013. He is a PAVO/NCAA national Referee and works for eight Division I conferences as well as various Division III and NJCAA schools in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. He resides in Annapolis and serves as the high school rules interpreter for the state of Maryland.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. Insightful and thought provoking. The suggestions go a long way in providing a basis for further discussion. As the season progresses and the pandemic moves into the next phase, we’ll be better equipped with strategies to effectively and safely facilitate our matches.

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